A Simple Way To Reform Political Advertising.

Since the Supreme Court decisions in Buckley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, there have been numerous initiatives to reform election campaigns. Most involve asking Congress to pass Constitutional Amendments that would control election finance or require publicly-funded elections. Though these attempts are admirable and necessary, I think they have little chance to succeed. Instead, I propose a much simpler way to reform political advertising that would not, in any way, infringe on the right to free speech.

All we need to do is hold political advertising to the same standard as advertising for products and services.

When a large corporation produces an ad for a product or service, it subjects the ad to legal compliance before placing the ad on television. That compliance process makes sure that any claims can be substantiated and defended in court. If the claims cannot be substantiated, the company may still run the ad at its own risk. (Indeed, even those ads that have passed legal compliance may be the center of a lawsuit.) But the company, the advertising agency, the writer and often the production company can all be held accountable for damages in ensuing lawsuits by numerous organizations such as the corporation’s competition, the Federal Trade Commission, the BBB, state Attorneys General and industry regulatory groups. This process ensures that ads tell the truth.

For example, when I began my career in advertising, I was recruited to write advertising for a product that promised to give your car better gas mileage and performance. Although I had been given a copy of an independent research report, I was still skeptical of the promises. So I asked the clients to sign an affidavit that the information I had been given was true. After the ads ran, the state Attorney General filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit naming the company, the art director and me. Thankfully, when I presented the affidavit to the AG, the art director and I were dropped from the lawsuit. The lawsuit was settled out of court with the company agreeing to pay a large fine, to return money to customers who requested refunds and to cease sales of the product.

The system worked. But there is no such system for political advertising.

Political campaign committees have long been free to say and do whatever they want. If an opponent sues over false and misleading advertising, the issue seldom comes to court until after the election. By that time the damage has been done; the entity that is the campaign committee no longer exists and usually no longer has funds to pay any fines. Only rarely are individuals held accountable and, if they are, the settlements take place much later away from the public eye.

The Federal Elections Committee could easily solve the problem by demanding that candidates and campaign managers sign affidavits that the claims made in their advertising are true and not misleading. Ads could be submitted to the FEC and bi-partisan state election committees for compliance. More important, all of the individuals would be held liable even beyond the election. (Yes, the system might require more federal and state funding. But isn’t the process of choosing an elected representative more important than choosing a laundry detergent?)

This would make the standards for political advertising almost identical to the standards for product advertising. As a result, this system should impose no undue hardship for politicians.

As for dark money groups (PACS, Super PACS, 501c4s) funded by billionaires and corporations which now sponsor the majority of our political ads, they can be held accountable by a one word change in the IRS code governing non-profits. Instead of the code requiring that non-profit groups be “operated primarily for the promotion of social welfare,” the code should be returned to its pre-1959 wording which required that non-profits be “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.”

The only real problem with this proposal is that Teapublicans simply don’t want to make changes. The FEC commissioners are split with 3 Teapublicans and 3 Democrats, and the Teapublicans have blocked every proposal to reform elections. They are content with dark money, with attack ads and with lies. In fact, they are quite good at it. Recent studies have shown that the preponderance of political lies come from Teapublicans. But aren’t these the same people who demand accountability from others? Adding an independent FEC commissioner would end the stalemates and make the FEC relevant again. These relatively minor changes would make all politicians accountable and likely make most political campaigns civil again. More important, it would make them more fair by requiring candidates to tell the truth and it would eliminate dark money from the process.

Who could be against that…other than liars and cheats, of course?

Just Politics?

Last week, the GOP unleashed its new election strategy. Not only did they vote for a “select” congressional committee with 7 Republicans and 5 Democrats to investigate Benghazi yet again (there have already been a total of 13 Congressional hearings, 50 Congressional briefings, 25,000 pages of findings, and numerous media investigations – all with the same result – there was no wrongdoing by the administration). They voted to hold former IRS agent, Lois Lerner, in contempt for invoking the Fifth Amendment and vowed to continue to investigate the already debunked claim that the IRS unfairly targeted Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny.  And they continue to claim that the Obama administration was somehow involved in Fast & Furious.

Of course, with all of this on their minds, the Teapublican-controlled House of Representatives (Isn’t it amazing how misleading that name now seems?) will have little time left to address the needs of the nation. Oh, they’ll find enough time to vote for more corporate welfare and to vote yet again to defund “Obamacare.” They’ll also likely vote for even more investigations intended to embarass the president. Numerous Teapublican leaders have even used the “I” word (impeachment) to rile up their base and ensure a strong Teapublican turnout for this November’s midterm elections.

When confronted by news media over the party’s obvious cynicism and divisive tactics, Teapublican leaders dismissed the issues as “just politics.” Seriously? Is this what now substitutes for a government of the people, by the people and for the people? To win at any cost? To filibuster every bill the other party introduces? To block virtually every nomination? To foment hate and divisiveness?

The whole notion of our two-party system was one of loyal opposition – that the two parties would compete for office based on ideas and what’s best for the nation. Then, following the elections, they would legislate and manage the nation based on those ideals. They could disagree, but they would work with the interests of the people in mind. How does the Teapublican determination to pursue bizarre conspiracy theories fit into that notion? How does that justify the use of government committees to destroy opponents rather than to help the nation? How does the Teapublican strategy of blatantly attempting to turn our citizenry against one another help our nation?

I am a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, so I could appreciate the compassion of the Democratic Party and its efforts to eliminate poverty and to help those in need. Likewise, I could appreciate traditional Republicans who focused on keeping taxes low and eliminating waste. Over the years, the goals and strategies of the Democratic Party are relatively unchanged. But the Republican Party no longer exists. It has been replaced with a hate-based, anti-government, win-at-any-cost group of sociopaths. It’s a party that panders to the wealthy and the powerful; that has never seen a military expenditure it didn’t like; that would give large corporations free reign to destroy our environment and defraud citizens; that will vote for any form of corporate welfare while taking food out of the mouths of single moms and children. It’s a party that can’t win on the strength of its ideas, so it resorts to dirty tricks, voter suppression and under-the-table campaign contributions.

Today’s Republican Party bears little resemblence to the party of Abraham Lincoln. It’s much more like the party of Joseph McCarthy.

It’s Difficult To Disprove A Negative.

Whenever someone accuses the government of a scandal, it’s almost impossible to disprove it. That’s because the accusation makes headlines. The truth doesn’t.

Nobody understands this principle better than Teapublicans.

When Bill Clinton was elected to the White House, he was forced to disprove a constant wave of scandals created by the GOP. Now it’s President Obama’s turn. That’s why we’ve seen a flurry of scandalous accusations about Fast & Furious, drones, Benghazi, the IRS, and NSA.

The headlines have been damning – based on outrageous claims by Rep. Darrell Issa, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Mitch McConnell and others. The truth has been less interesting.

For example, Issa made claims that Fast & Furious was a large scale gun-running operation overseen by Attorney General Eric Holder. The reality is that it was a small localized operation by a unit of the ATFE frustrated by Arizona’s lax gun laws and the inability to prosecute straw buyers.

Issa and others made the sensational claim that the president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ignored the danger to diplomats in Libya then covered up their failures. The reality is that Ambassador Stevens twice rejected increased security and the talking points released by Susan Rice were crafted by the CIA and mid-level State Dept. officials.

Teapublicans claim that IRS scrutiny of Tea Party organizations seeking nonprofit status was orchestrated by the White House and President Obama. The truth is, the IRS director was a Bush appointee and, according to testimony by an IRS supervisor in charge (who is, incidentally, a self-described conservative Republican), the scrutiny of Tea Party groups was not ordered by the administration and was not politically motivated.

Teapublicans and many Democrats claim that NSA collection of data demonstrates that President Obama is an authoritarian fascist operating in defiance of the 4th amendment of the Constitution. The truth is, the NSA program began immediately following 9/11 and the Obama administration reigned it in, eliminating warrantless wiretaps and clearing the collection of data through the FISA court and Congress. Interestingly, the people of Europe were aware of our program long before Snowden’s revelations and the overwhelming majority approve of it.

All of this proves that, now that our press is driven by ratings and sensationalism rather than a desire to inform, unscrupulous politicians can take advantage of it. And no politicians are more unscrupulous than today’s Republican Party.

The Real IRS Scandal.

The IRS should be embarrassed by revelations that it singled out Tea Party Patriot groups for extra scrutiny after they applied for 501(c)4 status. Not because scrutinizing these groups was wrong. But because the IRS did not deny them such status.

That’s right. None of these groups deserve to be considered 501(c)4 organizations. Neither do liberal groups. As Lawrence O’Donnell has pointed out on his show, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, that designation is supposed to be reserved for groups that promote the social welfare. In fact, the tax code describes qualifying organizations as “civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.”

What in that code describes the Tea Party?

Tea Party groups that have received the designation have almost entirely devoted their money and time to attack President Obama, Democratic candidates, progressive issues and the federal government. How does that meet the criteria of promoting social welfare?

Amazingly, despite the increased scrutiny, not a single Tea Party organization was denied 501(c)4 status. The same cannot be said for progressive groups. During the same period, numerous progressive groups were also asked to submit more information (I was involved with one), and, unlike the Tea Party, some progressive groups were denied non-profit status!

Congress and the IRS need to revisit the tax codes governing political groups. They should also take a serious look at the tax-free status of churches.

The Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” The tax-free status of churches flies in the face of this clause by forcing those who do not choose to belong to a church to indirectly subsidize religion through taxes. Indeed, it was because some states forced residents to subsidize churches that James Madison included the establishment clause in his Bill of Rights.

By declaring all church property (including church-owned hospitals and other income-producing businesses) tax-exempt, the rest of us have to make up for the lost revenue through increased taxes. And this amount is not insubstantial. Some reports claim that as much as 25 percent of all US property is tax-exempt for religious purposes.

If this public subsidy of churches is not bad enough, many churches intentionally involve themselves in politics contrary to IRS codes governing their tax-free status. In fact, hundreds of churches have not only campaigned from the pulpit. They have recorded their political rants and sent the videos to the IRS to show their contempt for the codes. During the last election, many churches (the Catholic Church primary among them) even told their members that they would “go to hell if they voted for President Obama.” Yet the IRS refused to enforce its own codes.

Now that’s a real IRS scandal!